Saturday, 10 March 2007

Day 4. Beypore

At Thrissur we called briefly on one of the Raja's relatives. Many months before in London, I had been asked by the Raja how he should fix a leaking tank.

These tanks, he explained are large stone lined tanks for bathing in, often associated with temples. I had discussed this with him, and made some suggestions, based on my construction experience. Over the intervening months, this had totally slipped my mind.

So it was with some surprise that I found myself being taken to see the tank I had "fixed". Anyhow its owner was very pleased with the result.

Making our leave of the Raja, we set off for Beypore. Having seen Dhows being constructed on the beach in Sharjah in the 1980's, and being aware that many of the craftsmen were from India, I was determined to try to see if I could find a working
shipyard in India that still made wooden boats.

North of Thrissur the road became far more pleasant, and we were out into relatively unspoiled territory. The fields were mainly rice, with the harvest nearly over. Many fields were host to beautiful Storks or Egrets that were obviously taking their toll of Frogs and other tasty morsels.

Feeling the need for similar sustainance, we asked Ramesh to find us a suitable place to stop for lunch. It was with a certain amount of trepidation that we entered the restaurant he had chosen. Even more when we tried to order, but we not have worried, because the food tasted really good.

At Ponnani, we expectedly came upon a very large and beautiful river. The steel bridge covering it, was a couple of hundred or so metres long. It was the sort of place that screamed out that it needed exploring. It was with deep regret that we had to push on.

As we neared Beypore it became apparently that we were entering a predominantly Muslim area, with relatively few Hindu's to be seen.

Travelling along the narrow road we encountered our first Elephant. Stopping in front of it, we allowed it to pass us, as we took photos. The Elephant, mahout and an assistant came past at a terrific pace. We were struck that it seemed to be the only traveller on the road with any road sense.

The last couple of miles down to the shipyard passed through a steeply cut valley, and was lined with many wood working shops, and small saw mills. At one point we were confronted with long "snakes" of incredibly thin strips of wood, sawn from a substantial log. This we were told was for making matches.

Arriving in an increasingly narrow street down by the river, we began to realise that we were amongst shipyards, that were still operative.

Not being entirely sure how we would be accepted, I walked into the yard, and up to the most senior looking man. He appeared to be a Muslim, so I thought I would see if my rusty Arabic would work.

Salaam Alekum... and it did. After a moment of puzzled hesitation, he replied.

There were about five or six men working on a substantial beam trimming it into shape, in the shadow of two vessels on the stocks. I was very surprised when one of the roughest of them started talking to me in quite good English. He had worked in Sharjah and Dubai.

It was fascinating to hear that they had launched over 40 ships from this one yard in the last 23 years. The current ships being built were about 100 tonnes burden, but they had launched ships of over 150 tonnes, with one 150 tonne ship being launched in 2005.

Together with my son we were able to climb up into one of the ships on the stocks.

The builders had erected a hoarding over the hulls to prevent the wood from splitting as it dried out.

Two men were inside the hull tighting up some of the thousands of hull fixings, who took great delight in extracting "tea money" from us for the right to have their photo taken.

Beyond the shipyard was the Beypore River, which was for many years the base for the Calicut rulers fleets. These sailors had from time been able to take on and defeat the Portuguese, and English shipping operating along the coast.

As we left the shipyard for the final part of our journey into Kozhikode, as Calicut is now called, it was clear that the area is experiencing quite a lot of political tensions.

Every mile or so up the road, there were lines painted on the tarmac, with the initals of the dominant political party behind them.

As we passed a Mosque it was discharging a group of party workers bearing a set of large banners, as they chanted slogans.

Copyright Nick Balmer, January 2007.

Day 4, Ernakulam to Thrissur.

Friday 15th January

Day 4, Ernakulam to Thrissur.

Thrissur Temple, showing the ground previously covered in a sacred grove

The Raja and his brother had been kind enough to take us into a plush hotel, after our visit to the Dutch Palace. As the evening drew on, it became clear that the strike was over, and out into the twilight were emerging many people who had obviously been enjoying a day off.

Soon the streets were packed as before. The whole scene around Fort Cochin was however disappearing under clouds of smoke. Cochin is suffering like so many cities in emerging economies from a breakdown in its litter collection system, under the sheer mass of new rubbish appearing every day.

As dusk fell the locals were taking matters into their own hands, and on every street corner men and women could be seen burning small pyres of rubbish. The effect was both picturesque, and slightly alarming, like so many demons in the night.

As dawn broke Richard and I looked out from our hotel restaurant windows once again onto the maelstrom of traffic that is the MG Road in Ernakulam. Hardly a moment passes without our seeing a car within microns of going under a bus, or a motorcyclist obliterated by a truck. Soon we too would be launching out into this bedlam of traffic.

Our host had arranged a car and driver for us, and was accompanying us for the first part of our journey to Thrissur. I was privately delighted to find that the car was one of those 1950’s Ambassador models.

Ramesh and Richard

Ramesh, our driver turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. Without his great help and patience, we should not have achieved as much as we did.

Leaving Ernakulam we soon encountered a huge queue of trucks and buses, blockaded on the opposite carriageway, headed into town. Such is the congested sate of the city, that the authorities ban trucks during the morning rush hour.

The route soon left the city and headed out into the countryside. This turned out to be extremely beautiful, although rapid ribbon development is taking place that threatens to overwhelm the fields, and palm groves.

Passing over a substantial river, as we climbed up the other bank, we passed an obviously old and substantial house. At this point the Raja told us that he had stayed there frequently as a child, and how on one occasion a flood had risen so high, that it had entered the basement of the house, whilst they were in it.

This really gave me pause for thought as the river was twenty to thirty feet at least below us, and the width of the flood must have been perhaps half a mile wide to have reached the level of the house.

Arriving in the outskirts of the town, we were soon into a thoroughly rundown and weary looking street of old houses and shops. The Raja had been telling us about the Pooram which happens in April and May each year with 30 to 40 elephants, and thousands of people taking place. I was beginning to wonder how this could be true, when we drove out into a large park like area, with huge mature trees and the roofs of a large temple complex.

Kocha explained that when his ancestors had ruled the area in the 1750’s there had been a large sacred grove on the area surrounding the temple. In those days the town had been much smaller than it is today.

I could not help regretting that these trees had not survived, as the temple looked a very fine one, which must have been even more impressive in the centre of its sacred grove.

Copyright Nick Balmer, 5th January 2007.